Black Widow

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Nunnally Johnson

Based on the novel “Black Widow” by Patrick Quentin

Director: Nunnally Johnson

Cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Ginger Rogers, Van Geflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft

Release: October 28, 1954

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Percent Noir: 30%

For the first ten minutes, “Black Widow” fools you into thinking that it’s going to be decent, trashy fun. Not good, mind you, but at least enjoyable. But the more you watch, the more bored you become. And then annoyed. And by the time the third act rolls out two twists you first predicted an hour before, your finger is inching for the remote, wanting to end the suffering. It’s worse than being merely bad (because bad can still be memorable, be interesting, be something) – it’s worthless.

The writer and director is Nunnally Johnson, who penned some very good noir screenplays in the past, including “The Woman in the Window” and “Moontide.” What happened here? He somehow never seemed to ask himself the fundamental question when approaching creating art — why did he want to make this movie? What story did he want to tell?

After his wife Iris (Gene Tierney) leaves town to care for her ill mom, Broadway uber-producer Peter (Van Helfin) meets a wannabe writer named Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) at a party thrown by his upstairs neighbors Lottie (Ginger Rogers) and Brian (Reginald Gardner). Peter and Nancy strike up what he thinks is a platonic friendship, and he even allows her to write in his apartment during the day when he is at work. But after Peter picks up Iris from the airport, the couple discover Nancy hanging from a noose in their bathroom. A police detective (George Raft) begins investigating and Peter becomes the prime suspect blah blah blah.

You know where this is going. You’ll yawn with boredom when it turns out Nancy was telling everyone that she was having an affair with Peter. Your heart won’t race when Peter escapes the police right before they’re going to arrest him for Nancy’s murder and has to take the investigation into his own hands. You may be asleep by the time the movie reveals that Nancy was having an affair with Brian, and that Lottie killed her in a fit of rage after finding out.

At 95 minutes, the movie feels twice that length. Johnson made the “what the fuck?” decision to shoot the movie in color and Cinemascope, and neither does the film any favors. Maybe he was trying to turn the small, intimate mystery into a major prestige picture, but that was the wrong choice. Worse, he does nothing with all the technology on his hands! We get some pretty city backgrounds to focus on when things happening in the foreground get boring (which is often), but almost every single shot composition seems hindered at being forced to be in widescreen. Peter should feel like his world is closing in on him and, well, it just doesn’t. Because Cinemascope. Characters actually stand abnormally far apart in some shots simply to exploit the widescreen, and set-ups like that take the viewer out of the film.

And then there’s the acting, which is ughhhhhh. Garner is horrendous as Nancy, styled with a bad haircut and apparently unsure of how human beings behave in any given situation. When she has to embrace the black widow aspect of her personality in flashbacks, things get really cringe-y. How is this alleged human being supposed to be attractive to anyone? She even botches the best line of the screenplay, where she describes her writing style: “It’s alright to write like Somerset Maugham and it’s alright to write like Truman Capote, but not at the same time.” How do you screw that up? One can’t help but think of Eve from “All About Eve” – Anne Baxter has never received enough credit for her work there, and to imagine someone like her in this role is to imagine a movie that is still awful, but probably at least watchable.

Perhaps realizing that Garner was going to sink the movie, the rest of the cast decided to phone it in, en masse. Raft is such a non-entity that I kept forgetting he was in the movie, only to think “Hey! That’s George Raft!” every time he appeared to interrogate someone. Tierney’s role could have been performed by a mannequin, and she obviously realizes it. Gardiner was probably hired after George Sanders turned down the role, and speaks as if he has just finished yawning before every line. Heflin seems bored by the entire affair, though he hits his marks adequately. Rogers at least tries to have fun with her diva part for her first scene or two, but by the end can barely muster up enough emotion to seem villainous.

So here I am, 800 words into my article (I usually shoot for 1000 to 1200) and I’ve realized I have nothing more to say about the movie. So I won’t.

Score: *


Advise & Consent

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Wendell Mayes

Based on the novel “Advise & Consent” by Allen Drury

Director: Otto Preminger

Cinematographer: Sam Leavitt

Music: Jerry Fielding

Cast: Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda

Release: June 6, 1962

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 40%

The films noir that director Otto Preminger made in the 1940s and early 1950s were connected in that they all showcased the director’s obsession with one of their respective characters. The films might have been ensembles, but “Laura” was obsessed with Waldo Lydecker, “Whirlpool” with David Korvo, “Angel Face” with Diane Tremayne, and so on. They were often the villains, but not all the time – “Where the Sidewalk Ends” offered up one of the most complex characters in Preminger’s filmography with Mark Dixon. By 1962, things had changed. You notice right away with “Advise & Consent” that the film has a very scattered viewpoint, for better and worse. It ping-pongs from character to character, almost all played by marquee stars, staying with some longer than others, but ultimately unable to choose a main character. Preminger seems at once obsessed with everything about this world… but also nothing.

In theory, this is smart because it shows how one (comparatively) small scandal can start dominos falling all over the political world of Washington D.C. In execution, it works to a certain extent because most of the characters we visit are interesting in their own right, but ultimately creates a hollow experience for the viewer when the climax hits. The scandal at the center involves the President (Franchot Tone) choosing controversial Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as his new Secretary of State, and the difficulties with getting him confirmed by the Senate. The President is dying, and his Vice President (Lew Ayres) gives him no confidence that he’ll continue the President’s foreign policies.

Despite being the lynchpins of the plot, Fonda, Tone and Ayres aren’t given much to do… it’s those surrounding their circle that Preminger and writer Wendell Mayes prefer. Charles Laughton plays Senator Seab Cooley, who will go to almost any lengths to get Leffingwell out of the running. Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority Leader, who is constantly punching the rising tide around him. Don Murray plays the leader of the panel investigating Leffingwell who finds out that the candidate lied, but is blackmailed before he can reveal the truth to the public.

Fuck, that’s a lot of characters, and I haven’t even gotten to Gene Tierney or Burgess Meredith or Peter Lawford yet. Even boiled down as much as I have above, the story sounds like quite the clusterfuck, and to the filmmakers’ credit, it rarely feels that way. Especially in the first act, there is a bit of whiplash as the film cuts from character to character and subplot to subplot, but Preminger was smart to cast mostly icons so that it’s easier for the viewer to keep them all straight. But, once you realize that this is how the film is structured, you settle in. That said, the event that ultimately is supposed to bring all the disparate threads together (Murray’s character commits suicide because of the blackmail) isn’t exploited well enough in the final act.

I’m also surprised how easy the intricacies of our government are to follow here. There’s one moment of very awkward exposition where Gene Tierney’s character trots out two other women and explains to them what the Senate does (in fact, part of me suspects this is the only reason Tierney’s character is even in the film), but other than that, the exposition is well-placed and well-hidden by Mayes.

With a cast this big, there will be some major hits and misses. Fonda, for example, doesn’t make much of an impact, nor does Tone (but what else is new?). Laughton is a riot as the Southern Senator who always seems both amused and infuriated. Murray has the meatiest role with the most melodrama and fully realized character arc, and does not disappoint – I’m not very familiar with his work, but wish I was.

The revelation that Murray’s character, Brig Anderson, had a gay love affair with a fellow soldier in his past is quite problematic. First, we have a morbidly obese man in bad clothing surrounded by cats toy with Brig, and then Brig enters a gay bar – Preminger frames the reveal garishly, with spinning lights, Brig’s eyes bugging out and the gay men catcalling after Brig when he runs out of the bar in horror. Yeah, not the best. I want to give the filmmakers a bit of leeway because it is a major twist, but the way it’s handled doesn’t feel right… if that makes any sense. And the fact that Brig literally leaves his ex-lover in the gutter as he drives off doesn’t help matters.

You also get the feeling that a good half hour can be chopped off the 139-minute runtime without missing much of anything. Tierney is a nonentity, as is Lawford. And there is much fat that could be trimmed in between Brig’s suicide and the final vote… the tension relaxes just when it should be tightening.

Visually, Preminger has a field day with capturing the dirt and grime of Washington D.C. and then contrasting it with the gleaming perfection of its rooms and structures. He was smart to keep the movie in black-and-white and not color – there’s something a little seedy about black-and-white here that works in the film’s favor. I also love the way he and cinematographer Sam Leavitt frame the senators in the climax – he manages to find new and interesting angles in a room that has been in hundreds of movies before and since.

“Advise & Consent” isn’t top-tier noir (many would argue that the film isn’t even part of the genre), nor is it prime Preminger, but it is a fascinating, flawed statement of its time. Like our government, its imperfections reflect things that worked back then and remain gripping today, and things that seemed boundary-pushing then but today seem tone-deaf.

Score: ***1/2

Ace in the Hole

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels & Billy Wilder

Story: Victor Desny

Director: Billy Wilder

Cinematographer: Charles Lang

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Richard Benedict

Release: June 29, 1951

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Awards: Nominated for “Best Story & Screenplay” at the 1952 Oscars, but lost to “An American in Paris”

Percent Noir: 50%

“Ace in the Hole” is the final of a quartet of films noir directed by Billy Wilder – and the other three are “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Blvd.” That trio were all nominated for Best Picture (“Lost Weekend” won), Best Director (Wilder won for “Weekend”) and Best Story & Screenplay (“Weekend” and “Sunset Blvd” won). Wilder was one of the most bankable directors of all time, which is probably why Paramount Pictures couldn’t fathom that “Ace in the Hole” failed financially.

Unable or unwilling to accept defeat, Paramount rebranded the film as “The Big Carnival” and re-released it. It bombed again. Because of this, “Ace in the Hole” has garnered a black sheep reputation among historians, many of whom bend the truth by saying the film was a critical disaster as well. It wasn’t – rereading period reviews today, I was struck by how supportive they were of the movie and its darkness. Sure, they didn’t call the movie a masterpiece (a label carved out in recent years, most notably since the film’s release by the Criterion Collection), but they appreciated Wilder’s filmmaking, and the re-release was ultimately nominated for Best Story & Screenplay at the 1952 Oscars (don’t ask me how that didn’t break a bunch of rules).

For me, “Ace in the Hole” is the least of the four Wilder films noir, but since the other three rank among the best films ever created, taking fourth place in this race isn’t a bad standing.

Kirk Douglas plays a soulless reporter named Chuck Tatum, who boasts about being fired from eleven major newspapers in his forced job interview with the Editor-in-Chief of an Albuquerque newspaper. He ends up spending a year there in his version of hell (No garlic pickles?! For shame!) before he and upstart photographer Herbie (Robert Arthur) happen across the moment Tatum has been waiting for.

A man named Leo (Richard Benedict) has become trapped in a cave in amongst some Native American ruins. Practically panting like a dog in heat, Tatum takes over every facet of the story, controlling who gets access to what and managing to tap into the national zeitgeist. Sensing malleable men around him, he teams with the town Sheriff (who carries a live rattlesnake around in a box with him in a much-too-obvious metaphor) to keep other reporters from getting any scoop. He offers a construction manager extra money to drill through a mountain to get to Leo instead of taking twelve hours and doing it the easy way. And Leo’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling)? So what if she was planning on leaving her husband and may have less of a soul than Tatum (if that’s possible) – the guy makes sure she cries on cue.

The story becomes so popular that sightseers arrive at the cave, first at a trickle but then by the carload, filling the desert with musicians and even a carnival with a Ferris wheel. All the while Leo, whose life is legitimately in grave danger every moment he spends in the cave in, twiddles his thumbs and tries not to go crazy from the drilling, a footnote in his own story.

“Ace in the Hole” is cynical in the way all of Wilder’s films noir are, and the movie also serves as an amalgamation of many of the master’s interests. Journalism is something he would visit time and again in his career, as would making a soulless character the “hero.” And the climax, where an injured Tatum wanders about, trying to confess his story, is reminiscent of the framing device of “Double Indemnity.” I don’t list these things as criticisms, because Wilder handles them excellently, but out of interest as a huge admirer of his work. You see moments like these and feel like a piece has been perfectly locked into the puzzle of his soul and filmography.

But as dark and exciting as much of “Ace in the Hole” is, I do have a few major stumbling blocks with the screenplay. First, I don’t buy the tent of other reporters just sitting there and doing nothing for days on end – all of them distrust Tatum and are smart, capable reporters in their own right – so why not add to the tension by having them uncover some of Tatum’s misdeeds? Second, I wish there were more to the Leo story: it’s hard to buy an entire nation waiting with baited breath for a week when the story doesn’t evolve or change in any meaningful way. When Leo dies, nothing much has changed from when Tatum found him… what was the guy writing about all those days?

But when the movie is good, it’s great. Douglas does a good job of personifying the kind of odious human being you don’t want to spend more than two minutes in a room with, but can’t look away from onscreen. Sterling is superb as a bored femme fatale who needs lessons in balancing her greed with her public appearance of grief. The way she says “I don’t go to church — kneeling bags my nylons” is one of my favorite line readings in all of Wilder.

Then there are all the small moments Wilder is famous for, like Tatum’s very specific way of lighting matches on a typewriter, or the fact that one of the supporting characters name checks the same insurance company that Fred MacMurray worked for in “Double Indemnity.” And how many times do you think Douglas had to do the fall in the final shot of the movie so his dead eye would be perfectly lined up with the camera? However many it took, it was worth it.

Score: ****

A Bullet For Joey

The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Daniel Mainwaring, A.I. Bezzerides

Story: James Benson Nablo

Director: Lewis Allen

Cinematographer: Harry Neumann

Music: Harry Sukman

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Audrey Totter

Release: April 15, 1955

Studio: United Artists

Percent Noir: 80%

If you squint real hard at “A Bullet For Joey,” it may convince you that it is a good film. All the parts are there, and every aspect of the execution is passable, but not much more. If you’re really in the mood for a noir and, for some reason, all of your other film noir DVDs and Blus have broken, and your internet is out so you can’t stream anything, you could do worse.

Here, let me tell you what it’s aboot (that’s a Canadian joke – you’ll understand it in two words): In Canada, a nuclear scientist named Carl Macklin (George Dolenz) is wanted by “a foreign power” (*cough* Russia *cough*). So an American gangster named Joey (George Raft) is brought up to kidnap him for $100,000. Joey enlists his ex-flame Joyce (Audrey Totter) to seduce him, but she starts to actually like Macklin and realizes that maybe aligning herself with the bad guys might *gasp* make you a bad person as well. All the while, Canadian Mountie Inspector Leduc (Edward G. Robinson) is on the case.

It’s not a bad premise, and who hasn’t wanted to see a noir set in Canada? That was a joke, but in theory it should lend some color to the proceedings… until you realize that no one is speaking with Canadian accents, or that there’s any real reason it’s set up north when everything looks very Los Angeles. Oh well. At least the organ grinder in the first scene who turns out to be a trained assassin is eccentric (though the chase scene involving the assassin that immediately follows is horribly staged and edited) and results in one of the best bad lines in all of noir, spoken by Robinson at Mountie headquarters: “Really? An organ grinder? Out that early in the morning?” Apparently in this Canadian small town/harbor city/it changes from scene to scene, it’s normal for organ grinders to be out and about, but only after noon.

If I were only looking at the poster, “A Bullet For Joey” has all the ingredients of a great film. The director is Lewis Allen, who made the best haunted house film of all time with “The Uninvited,” and would later in 1955 reunite with Robinson for the crackerjack noir “Illegal.” It was written by Daniel Mainwaring (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) under a pseudonym and A.I. Bezzerides (“Kiss Me Deadly,” “On Dangerous Ground”). In addition, noir superstars Robinson and Totter are in front of the camera. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with noir, this would appear to be a must-see.

But the problems start as soon as the opening credits roll, with a cutaway after the title to a gun firing directly at camera, a lame visual that hasn’t stirred an audience since it was first used in 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery.” Throughout, the movie keeps flirting with being better than it is, but consistently shies away from doing anything interesting. There’s a subplot where one of Joey’s heavies (William Bryant) must romance a Macklin’s secretary (Toni Gerry) to get info out of her. The secretary is an unattractive bookworm and the heavy is very handsome, and their odd pairing could have easily resulted in something wonderful had the two characters liked one another. But no, nothing of the sort happens and, when the secretary realizes it’s a ruse, she immediately does the stupidest thing possible (tells him she’s going to the police, gets out of the car and slowly heads for town on food down the middle of a mountain road) so we feel nothing when he guns her down.

Then much is made out of the fact that Joey still loves Joyce, despite her strong misgivings about going back to the dark side. This is all in the script – Raft and Totter have less than zero chemistry, but regardless, after Joyce decides to betray Joey and tell the police everything, you think things are going to heat up. Then Joey discovers her betrayal… and does nothing. Here could have been a wonderful, heartbreaking (at least in theory) moment where he has to kill his love… or something. But no, Raft just grimaces, then dumps her on a boat with Macklin.

All the while, Robinson gives the worst performance I’ve ever seen from him – he genuinely seems like he does not want to be in this movie. In the third act, his character has a barnburner speech where he convinces Joey to switch to the side of good, and Robinson might has well be yawning between sentences. Raft may or may not be trying to turn in a good performance – but he’s bad regardless and is much, much, MUCH too old for the character he plays. Totter has a couple sweet scenes with Dolenz, but seems to recognize that no one else around her cares, then lowers her standards accordingly.

And if you thought the acting was “eh,” just wait until you see the visuals! Allen and cinematographer Harry Neumann (a bunch of Mr. Wong and Monogram Charlie Chan films) seem intent to make every set seem flat and uninspired, including the storage ship where the third act is set! How do you screw that up?! There isn’t a single moment of visual distinction in the entire running time.

Every filmmaker was capable of greatness and achieved it often elsewhere, but not with “A Bullet For Joey.” When a movie is this phoned in, you can’t help but wonder at what point in the production did everyone realize that no one else cared. Was it the first day on set, or did it take a couple days before it hit every crew member?

Score: *

The Postman Always Rings Twice

postman 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Harry Ruskin & Niven Busch

Based on: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain

Director: Tay Garnett

Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner

Music: George Bassman

Cast: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Hume Cronyn, Cecil Kellaway, Audrey Totter

Release: May 2, 1946

Studio: MGM

Percent Noir: 80%

James M. Cain’s short novel version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is a great crime story. Adaptation is a tricky thing, especially when it concerns a work as well regarded as this, and the 1946 film version pulls off the hat trick of being very faithful to Cain’s words while still existing as its own entity. The overt sexuality of the novel is left to implication in the film, and that surprisingly strengthens the narrative. It’s equal to the book in almost every way, and even better in others. This is a movie that casts a spell on the viewer – I stopped taking notes almost immediately after starting it, caught up in the storytelling.

John Garfield plays a drifter named Frank who gets a job at a highway-side gas station/diner partly for the money and partly for the blonde bombshell who lives there, Cora (Lana Turner). Frank is head over heels from minute one, but Cora is icy… and married to the kindly but drunken Nick (Cecil Kellaway), who is older than Cora and not a match for her at all.

postman 3The first act is as much about sex as any movie I have ever seen, despite the fact that it’s not explicit in any way. Cora’s introduction is incredibly sexy, with her “accidentally” dropping her lipstick and Frank giving it back to her. A few days or weeks later, Frank kisses Cora passionately. He stands back, proud of himself, waiting for a response. Her response is not to speak, but just put her lipstick on coldly before walking away.

At some point Frank and Cora start sleeping together. Or maybe they don’t. That’s part of the fun of the film – you can totally believe them having great (unseen) sex as Frank gets more and more under her spell. Or you can imagine that they aren’t having sex, and that’s why Frank is getting more and more obsessed with having her. Turner wears only white until the third act, and it meshes perfectly with her blonde hair – she never looked more beautiful on film. And Garfield is no slouch either. Director Tay Garnett shoots him softly and from flattering angles so that you totally get his sex appeal.

At a certain point, Frank and Cora plot Nick’s murder. The cold logic they use is weirdly flawless. But when the first attempt doesn’t take (Nick is banged but not broken), they promise never, ever, ever, ever to do that again. Five minutes of screen time later, a new plan is hatched, and this one does take, but a suspicious district attorney (Cecil Kellaway) becomes set on making sure they, specifically Cora, fry.

postman 2Enter Hume Cronyn, who walks into the film as slimy lawyer Arthur Keats knowing he’s got the showstopper part and acting it out fantastically. The way he approaches Cora (Turner’s best scene in the movie is where she screams at Arthur and somehow manages not to go over the top), uses Frank and ultimately gets them both released is pretty stunning, and a testament to the fact that law minutiae can be absolutely compelling when presented in the right way. Cain would do the same thing with the intricacies of the insurance industry one of his other noir novels, “Double Indemnity.”

Then, shockingly, at a certain point you start rooting for these two crazy kids to work things out. This is a most rare occurrence, and perhaps I’m a bit of a psycho for liking them after they murdered someone, but there it is. You yell at the screen when Frank betrays Cora, you yell at the screen again when Cora is cold to Frank, you want to hit Frank upside the head for cheating on Cora with femme-fatale in training Audrey Totter… and yet you keep rooting for them.

This makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. They were ready to start anew! She was going to have a baby! But when the car accident happens, the filmmakers do the most beautiful thing to bring their relationship full circle – our final moment with Cora is watching her limp, dead hand drop her lipstick, which rolls forward to Frank.

Aside from Garfield, who would also make the films noir like “Humoresque” and “He Ran All Night” and novelist Cain, who provided the source material for the noir masterpieces “Mildred Pierce” and the aforementioned “Double Indemnity,” most of the cast and crew seem oddly matched to the crime genre. Cinematographer Sidney Wagner, who was in the final year of his career, bathes most of the film in light, only bringing in the noir shadows during the first car accident and a later scene in the ocean (which is set against a very unfortunate fake water backdrop). This was probably a missive from MGM in order to make the content not seem too salacious (I also have a feeling Turner’s white wardrobe spawned from the same feeling, though that works beautifully in the movie’s favor), and Wagner makes up for those shortcomings by having his camera make love to Garfield and Turner in basically every frame. Workhorse director Garnett and writers Harry Ruskin & Niven Busch never came close to making another film as amazing as “Postman,” (though Garnett’s “One Way Passage” is pretty dang great), but perform their respective duties admirably. Garnett in particular seems to have made the movie in the middle of a nervous breakdown (he fell off the wagon during shooting and had to be placed in rehab), but his camera and character work is never less than exquisite.

There have been almost a dozen adaptations of Cain’s novel (including an opera!). I haven’t seen any of the others, which include the very first Italian neorealist film “Ossessione” and David Mamet’s version starring Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. I’m curious to see Mamet’s work – it appears to make explicit everything that was only hinted at here, and I want to see if the story works as well.

And it does work beautifully here. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” is one of my favorite films noir, and one that never fails to get me excited to experience again. Like the canyon where Nick is murdered, the movie echoes long after you’ve finished it. You think back on the characters and think about their lives and wonder…

Score: *****

The Set-Up

set up 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Art Cohn

Based on: a poem by Joseph Moncure March

Director: Robert Wise

Cinematographer: Milton Krasner

Music: C. Bakaleinikoff

Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Percy Helton

Release: March 29, 1949

Studio: RKO Pictures

Percent Noir: 40%

I really dislike boxing.

I understand its appeal in theory, but I just don’t… well… get it. That said, there are more good/great films about boxing than any other sport (sorry, baseball). “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “Raging Bull,” “Rocky,” “Warrior”… all essential for cinephiles. There’s something so appealing about exploring those who brutally allow their bodies to be beaten, both from a storytelling standpoint and a visual one, since scars often exist in both ways.

“The Set-Up” is an uncompromising look at a fighter named Stoker (Robert Ryan) long past his prime but still chasing the dream of the perfect fight…even though the chances of that happening grow more infinitesimal by the day. His loving wife Julie (Audrey Totter) has put up with his bullshit for decades and understandably can’t take it anymore – after his last fight he was so punch-drunk he could not even recognize her for hours. His managers (George Tobias and Percy Helton, who really should have made a sitcom together) have no faith in him. Tobias’ character takes a bribe that Stoker will lose the fight that night, and doesn’t even figure he needs to clue in the fighter – he has that little faith in Stoker.

set up 3And that’s really it. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Art Cohn (who worked from a source material poem, of all things) are less interested in the plot that exploring the inner lives of Stoker and Julie. A good chunk of the movie takes place in the changing area of the stadium where the fights are going on that night, and we watch Stoker interact with several other fighters at different points in their career. There’s the queasy upstart (Darryl Hickman) who vomits before he goes out for his first fight. There’s the guy (James Edwards) who you can tell really has what it takes to be a champion. Most heartbreakingly, we see the fighter two steps past Stoker (David Clarke), whose face is mangled from all his time in the ring and whose boasting and big dreams seem completely delusional – he never made it and never will.

We watch Stoker speak to all of them, contemplate how they reflect different points in his career and how that relates to how he perceives himself now. I run hot and cold on Ryan, who can completely misread his characters from time to time, but here he is completely on point. His performance is, until the actual fight, almost completely introspective, and Ryan gets across such diverse emotions with only a small facial change or two. Cohn intelligently mentally and physically cripples Clarke’s character just before Stoker goes into the ring, allowing the audience to see the real stakes for these men.

Just as engaging, and just as subtle, is Totter’s work as Julie. She tells her husband she can’t…won’t…watch the fight tonight, and then escapes her shitty motel room into the night. She wanders through the city, almost going into the stadium but thinking the better of it. These short scenes underline just how alone Julie is – she has given up her entire life to follow her husband around the country. And yet, here she is, having to protect herself from creeps on the street and make meals out of warming crappy vegetable soup on a hot plate in her hotel room. Did she ever have any friends? Who was she before this lifestyle ruined her? Stoker has destroyed his own life, sure, but he’s also taken her down with friendly fire. Cohn and Wise deserve a lot of credit for humanizing Julie – a lesser movie would have turned her into a screaming harpy. But here the audience (or at least me) side with her point-of-view… it’s time for Stoker to hang up his gloves.

set up 2The fight itself is a stunning visual achievement, one of the highlights of Wise’s storied career. Scorsese obviously took a lot of inspiration from here for the fight scenes in “Raging Bull” (he also does the audio commentary on the DVD with Wise), and as every round continued I was shocked by the brutality the filmmakers managed to get across. And, for the most part, they just stay on the fight – it’s engaging enough that you don’t need cutaways. But when they do cut away to the audience, the characters we see are keepers. There’s the blind man who is informed of every punch by his friend. The wife who is more bloodthirsty than her husband. Another listens to the baseball game on a radio while watching the fight.

Stoker summons up all the will inside him to win the fight. Of course he does. But, thanks to the bribe before the game, it costs him his hand. In the original poem, Stoker was murdered, but here Cohn deserves so much credit for twisting this darkness into light. With his hand broken, his career is over and he can finally be a husband to Julie. Sure, it’s a little crazy that both Stoker and Julie have this revelation while Stoker is holding his pulverized hand, collapsed and waiting for the ambulance (methinks it was more subtle originally but a studio note came into play), but I went with it because I identified with Julie.

Because of some of his later work like “The Sound of Music,” “Star!” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” Wise is often misconstrued as a tame director. He’s not. His work can be as bloody, savage and violent as any director. Most remember “West Side Story” for the dancing, but it’s a dark tale at its core. He made two of the best, darkest horror films ever with “The Haunting” and “The Body Snatcher,” and directed several films noir as well. The quality of his work varies wildly from picture to picture, but when he’s at his best, he can really amaze you.

Here he and his cinematographer Milton Krasner (“The Bank Dick,” “All About Eve,” “An Affair to Remember”) create the events of the film pretty close to real time, and go to great lengths to make the film flow like it is. Though they probably couldn’t afford the intricate crane shot from the street all the way up into Stoker’s hotel window, the filmmakers use a few easy set-ups to mimic the effect.

This is a simple story, well told. Ryan gives the best performance I’ve seen from him so far, and Totter shines as well. It’s a credit to the film that I (who, remember, hates boxing) was enthralled from the first frame to the last.

Score: ****

The Killers

killers 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Richard Brooks, John Huston (uncredited), Anthony Veiller (credited)

Based on: “The Killers” short story by Ernest Hemingway

Director: Robert Siodmak

Cinematographer: Woody Bredell

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Charles McGraw, William Conrad

Release: October 9, 1947

Studio: Universal Pictures

Awards: “The Killers” was nominated for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Dramatic Score and Best Editing (Arthur Hilton) Oscars, but lost in every category to “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Percent Noir: 90%

If “Citizen Kane” wasn’t already a film noir, then “The Killers” would be the “Citizen Kane” of film noir. Not because it matches the former in terms of quality, because it does not (and, frankly, nothing ever has), but because “The Killers” focuses on placing together the pieces of a recently dead man’s life, searching desperately for answers despite no assurance that there are any.

The dead man in question is commonly known as the Swede (Burt Lancaster), who was found by two hired guns (Charles McGraw, William Conrad) and surrendered to his shooting death, not even trying to protect himself. An insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the odd circumstances surrounding the murder, piecing together stories from the Swede’s varied friends/enemies/frienemies, including his cop friend (Sam Levene), a hotel maid who stopped the Swede from committing suicide, his prison cellmate (Vince Barnett) and finally the mysterious, beautiful Kitty (Ava Gardner).

KIL004BIThe film was a breakthrough for both Lancaster and Gardner, rocketing them onto the A-list. Since the film is structured so interestingly, both their characters must make a huge impact in their early scenes, despite not being able to define who they are. Heck, we get no glimpse of the Swede’s real personality until 35 minutes into the movie. The screenwriters and director Robert Siodmak use several methods to keep things interesting for viewers. First, and most blatantly, they play up Lancaster’s sex appeal. He appears in a tight sleeveless t-shirt in his first two scenes, and then is shirtless in wrestling trunks and showering in his next. And since what is good for the goose is good for the gander, Gardner appears in a beautiful dress and sings (not well), glancing at the Swede (and, by extension, the audience) all too seductively.

Then, once Reardon really starts digging into the case, both get meatier, better scenes where they can show off their star quality. The climactic scene of Gardner attempting to force a dying man to lie is a stunner – despite having little to do earlier, the audience leaves the theater just wanting to discuss her. And despite this being Lancaster’s first major role, he had already perfected that perfect sexy brood he’d bring to most of his most memorable roles.

But despite those two excellent showcases, “The Killers” works because it is, at its heart, an ensemble piece. It appears as if every character actor, from O’Brien on down, recognized that this was their opportunity to make a huge impact with very little screen time, and adjusted themselves accordingly. We remember wonderful small moments, like the jealousy the Swede’s ex shows when she watches him spying Kitty for the first time. Or Barnett’s prison buddy character trying to tenderly tell the Swede a truth about love without breaking him. Then there’s the opening sequence, which is rightly one of the most lauded in noir history, with the hit men entering a diner, giving the most aggressive food order ever and then taking everyone hostage. Not a line is wasted and none of the actors hit a sour note. The economy with which Siodmak and his cinematographer Woody Bredell lens the scene makes it even more tense – there’s no need to show off.

killers 3They do enjoy showing off elsewhere, though, specifically allowing awesome visual expressionism to color the flashbacks. Take the prison scene, lit with amazing shadows and framed near an entirely unconvincing (yet still impactful) sky. Or the graveside scene where everyone has umbrellas that drip water despite it not raining. But the most incredible has to be the one-shot robbery, which matches more famous one-ers like “Touch of Evil” in quality, keeping the viewer on the edge of his seat from the storytelling while astounding them at the visual invention on display.

Siodmak made a great many films over his career, but “The Killers” is part of his unofficial noir trilogy, which also includes “The Spiral Staircase” and “Criss Cross.” Together, they represent peak noir, and are among the most well respected by critics and fans everywhere. I’ll never forget walking into a screening of “Criss Cross” at the Turner Classic Film Festival several years ago. I was running late and my chosen film and my back-up film were sold out, so I went into the movie knowing nothing. By the end, I was so stunned by its quality that I could barely move from my chair. I walked out of the theater wanting to grab everyone and insist they watch the movie right now, do you hear me, right now!

“The Killers” never quite reaches that level of excellence, at least for me. A lot of it comes from the fact that the Swede remains an enigma for most of the movie, so there’s no beating heart of the film to latch on to. Sure, one could argue Reardon acts as our hero, but he’s as much a cipher as the reporter in “Citizen Kane,” albeit one more fleshed out and allowed to appear out of the shadows.

That said, the film has moments that linger long after the film ends. That opening sequence is as close to perfect filmmaking as you can get. And Lancaster is a revelation – while Gardner’s career would veer her away from film noir, Lancaster remained enmeshed in the shadows of the genre for several more years. Right where he belongs.

Score: ****

The Lineup

lineup 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Stirling Silliphant

Based on: “The Lineup” CBS Television Series

Director: Don Siegel

Cinematographer: Hal Mohr

Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff

Cast: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Warner Anderson

Release: June 1, 1958

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 40%

By 1958 the “classic” era of film noir was over – low-budget crime stories seemed a better fit on television than for the big screen, which was using Cinemascope! Vistavision! and the like to combat audiences’ desires to do a very early version of Netflix and chill. Then someone at Columbia Pictures got the idea to do a feature adaptation of the CBS crime series “The Lineup” as a way to get audiences to head back to theaters. These types of adaptations have had varying degrees of success, but producers were on the right track when they hired the ace team of Don Siegal and Stirling Silliphant to direct and pen the adaptation.

Shipments of heroin are being transported into San Francisco’s port by unknowing civilians in items like dolls, statues and silverware. Stone cold killers/partners Dancer (Eli Wallach) and Julian (Robert Keith) are driven around the city by McLain (Richard Jaeckel) to retrieve the heroin from the unsuspecting people… no matter what. Meanwhile, Detective Lieutenant Guthrie (Warner Anderson, reprising his role from the television series) is hot on their tracks.

The movie reflected a growing trend in ‘50s noir, which was to move out of the cramped, venetian blind-filled rooms. Instead we were outside, usually in big cities and often during the day. Location shooting was fairly cheap and provided a different, but just as distinct, atmosphere to underline crime stories. Some use the phrase “semi-documentary style,” which I personally hate because the movies are still very stylized in content. The move outside resulted in some tremendous films, like “Panic in the Streets,” “Kiss of Death” and, yes, “The Lineup.” The filmmakers were obviously told to make this movie seem “bigger” than anything that could be presented in the series (the poster comes with the tagline “Too hot…too big…for TV!”, and as a result the film is bathed in sun and filled with great location work. This works in the film’s favor – there’s something unnerving about all these horrible actions taking place in a crowded place during the day.

lineup 2Siegel and Silliphant tell a great crime story, but there’s another layer to “The Lineup” that pays direct homage to the many great films noir that preceded it. The duo obviously didn’t know about “noir” yet, but were very consciously channeling their favorite crime films, from the aquarium scene in “The Lady From Shanghai” to the wheelchair-bound boss who takes a spill similar to “Kiss of Death.” Because the movie is so good, it transcends these lifts and works as its own thing. I’m going to make an odd leap here, but go with me. This feels like a very early iteration of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

I know, I know. But think about it. Aside from the aforementioned nods to other crime flicks, Silliphant and Siegel are obsessed with the development of their trio of villains. Once they are introduced at the twenty minute mark, they all but take over the movie. And Silliphant crafts plenty of sick humor to the trio – for example, Julian is obsessed with knowing the final words minor characters say before Dancer murders them. They are given a more interesting dynamic and are crafted with more care than almost any other comparable noir villains, and that clever balance of humor and horror is what makes the film extraordinary.

There is also, of course, the none-too-subtle implication that Dancer and Julian are a gay couple in addition to their crime partnership. Homosexual overtones are nothing new in noir, just look at movies like “Gilda” and “The Maltese Falcon,” but this is the most overt instance I’ve ever seen (for the record, I’ve never seen “Desert Fury”). In case we don’t get it from the way Julian lovingly stares after Dancer when he goes to find out who to kill, Silliphant sets one of the major set-pieces in a sauna. As Dancer strips down to go inside, Julian warns him “Don’t stay in too long. It opens the pores.” And once inside the sauna with his mark (William Leslie, the only classically handsome actor in the entire film), Dancer pulls his gun out of his towel and plugs the mark right in his naked stomach. Um, we get it, guys. And I, for one, love it.

Silliphant injects the entire film with crackerjack, memorable dialogue and situations that feel a bit tilted from reality in the best way possible. One of the first lines in the movie is when Guthrie is questioning a suspect and the suspect laments meeting him in such “unfortunate circumstances.” Without missing a beat, Guthrie spits “We meet a lot of people under unfortunate circumstances” and gets back to questioning. Then there are the small beats, like the fact that a girl used the heroin to powder her geisha doll’s cheeks, or the fact that the guy in the wheelchair who falls a good two stories lands on an innocent ice-skater. Whoopsies. This shouldn’t be surprising – Silliphant is one of the best screenwriters in the history of the biz. He wrote great (“Village of the Damned”) movies (“The Poseidon Adventure”) in diverse (“In the Heat of the Night”) genres (“Nightfall”) as well as some of the best television shows (“Naked City”) you’ve never seen (“Route 66”).

lineup 3The climactic chase sequence is stunning. It utilizes rear projection for much of the interior work, but Seigel makes it work beautifully. Compare this rear projection with something like Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” made five years later, and you’ll see how rarely it’s done right. There’s a stunt where the getaway car races up an unfinished bridge and spins out, coming to a stop inches before the edge… and you realize that the moment could not have been faked. A real stunt driver in a real vehicle could have easily tipped over the edge and crashed below.

Bringing the entire affair together was Siegel, who also directed the pilot of “The Lineup” television series. Like Silliphant, Siegel is a great director, though not as heralded today as he probably should be. He worked on several great films noir (“The Big Steal” remains one of my favorites), but will always be remembered for his noir/sci-fi mash-up “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a movie so great it’s been badly remade five times. He directed many other classic films, but “The Lineup” presents him working at the peak of his powers with partners both behind and in front of the screen who match him in excellence. This is an essential noir.

Score: *****

The Letter

letter 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Howard E. Koch

Based on: “The Letter” play by W. Somerset Maugham

Cinematographer: Tony Gaudio

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Gale Sondergard, Victor Sen Yung

Release: November 22, 1940

Studio: Warner Bros.

Awards: Nominated for seven Oscars but lost in all categories: Best Picture (to “Rebecca”), Director (to John Ford for “The Grapes of Wrath”), Actress for Davis (to Ginger Rogers for “Kitty Foyle), Supporting Actor for Stephenson (to Walter Brennan in “The Westerner”), Score (to “Pinocchio”), Editing (to “North West Mounted Police”) and B&W Cinematography (to “Rebecca”)

Percent Noir: 60%

That Leslie Crosbie is quite a dame, no?

Don’t get me wrong, she scares the shit out of me. But the way Bette Davis inhabits the character, with her expressive (often angry) eyes, is incredible. Despite her quiet persona, she speaks with an assured tenor and is the kind of person you just know is going to figure her problems out, no matter what the consequences. Leslie is one of the best characters in film noir, male or female, and every moment Davis is onscreen you cannot look away from her.

letter 2The film takes place in Malaya, and opens with Leslie unloading all the bullets in a gun into a family friend named Hammond. As one does. Leslie claims that Hammond just showed up and attempted to rape her, but still must stand trial for her act. Her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) is endlessly supportive, but her lawyer Howard (James Stephenson) begins to have some suspicions. Then a note surfaces that Leslie sent to Hammond, inviting him to come over that night, and Howard finds himself in very, very grey ethical territory. The note is in the possession of Hammond’s wife (Gale Sondergaard in unfortunate yellow face), and she has some very specific demands before it’s turned over.

The thing that immediately sets this noir apart from many others is its tone and how its characters approach Leslie’s act. A British police inspector arrives to investigate and treats Leslie with such kid gloves, you’d think they were discusses a boring croquet match instead of a shooting. Every character immediately gives Leslie the benefit of the doubt, and no one is questioning why the woman is acting much too calm for the situation. No one blinks when someone asks why Leslie didn’t call for help and she shrugs and says “I didn’t want to make a fuss.” When Leslie finishes the story, the inspector immediately says “I think you behaved magnificently.” Seriously.

Later Leslie and her friends sit down at the table and discuss cars and dinner, pretending very intensely that a murder didn’t just take place. These sequences are fascinating to watch – Davis nails Howard Koch’s great, multi-layered dialogue (much taken directly from W. Somerset Maugham’s excellent play of the same name), with people searching for any kind of small talk that could replace conversation about the bloody elephant in the room.

letter 3These sequences make a great set-up for when Leslie’s true motives for the murder begin to present themselves and things get messy. Koch interestingly paints all of the British characters as somehow disconnected from reality, whereas all of the native characters have a full understanding of life. Aside from Leslie, the most fascinating character in the film is one of Howard’s assistants, a man named Ong Chi Seng. Played by Sen Yung (Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son represent!), Ong at first seems complacent, with a fake smile plastered on his face as he tries to accommodate everything Howard needs. But watch the way he brings up knowledge of the letter, and later the way he smiles at Howard when he proudly admits that he’s making $2,000 out of the letter/money exchange. It’s a small role, but Yung knocks it out of the park.

The most divisive aspect of “The Letter” is its climax. Whereas the play ends with Leslie being acquitted for the murder and then tearfully admitting that she hates her husband and is still in love with the man she killed, that would not do for the Hays code. So the film takes the sequence a step further, with Leslie wandering outside where she is stabbed to death by Hammond’s wife. Many find this extra beat silly and that it undercuts much of what came before, but several noir scholars have voiced strong support of it.

I wish I had stronger feelings one way or another. On the one hand, it’s a better comeuppance for Leslie to finally admit her true motives to her husband and then have to live with the consequences. On the other, there’s a randomness and viciousness to the act that perfectly bookends the brutality of the opening. I do think that Koch and director William Wyler go way over-the-top in terms of metaphor and imagery in those final moments – there’s the clouds and the moon, the knife, the knitting, the party… the film would have been much better with only one or two of those.

Like Michael Curtiz, Wyler is one of those great directors who created wonderful films in just about every genre. He was a master at picking out the heart of a story and then spinning the rest of the film around it. Because he produced very good movies in various genres, as opposed to specializing in one, he’s less remembered today than he should be, especially considering he’s second only to George Cukor in getting great female performances on film. Bette Davis called him the first great director she ever worked with, and their first collaboration on the “Gone With the Wind” precursor “Jezebel” earned her an Oscar for Best Actress. I would mention my other favorite Wyler films, but then this article would simply turn into a very long list.

For the most part Wyler gets out of the way of his actors, but also throws in some sublime visual touches. The film opens with a “long take” (with several hidden cuts) of the various rubber farm workers sleeping before the camera happens upon the murder – it’s the perfect way to set up the atmosphere of the situation. Wyler returns to that atmosphere in the finale as well. Then there’s a sequence where Leslie is describing the events leading up to the murder where Wyler’s camera becomes a searching POV, much like the explanation scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” but the trick works better here.

The film is one of the first of the classic noir cycle, and certainly starts things off with a bang. It’s a shame Davis didn’t portray more femme fatales in her career – she gives one of the defining performances of the noir genre here, one any fan of the genre should seek out.

Score: ****1/2

The Big Heat

big heat 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: Sydney Boehm

Based on: The “Saturday Evening Post” serial by William P. McGivern

Director: Fritz Lang

Cinematographer: Charles Lang

Music: Henry Vars

Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan

Release: October 14, 1953

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Percent Noir: 90%

The influence of “The Big Heat” on film cannot be overstated. The idea of the main character seeking vengeance/justice by taking down an evil consortium no matter what it takes has had so many iterations in the decades since the film’s release that the storyline itself has become a clam.

It’s not the fault of “The Big Heat” that all of its rip-offs have lessened the impact of the original. Today we watch the first act and it appears as if a huge neon sign is pointing at Detective Bannion’s (Glenn Ford) sweet, loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando). They have a sugary-sweet back-and-forth from moment one, share everything from their steak to a bottle of beer, and Henry Vars’ otherwise competent score is over-the-top saccharine. Today, the viewer counts down the minutes until poor Katie (characters with the name Katie never fare well in movies, have you noticed?) is exploded in a car bomb meant for Bannion. The woman is such an angel that, when her husband drags her lifeless body from the still-burning vehicle, not even her hair appears to have been singed in the explosion – she’s still perfect, just dead.

This predictability (again, it’s not the film’s fault) casts a pall over the first act of “The Big Heat.” A crooked cop got tired of being crooked and commits suicide in the first seconds of the film, leaving a detailed letter explaining the intricate web of corruption that defines the relationship between the police force and the local mafia. His widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) steals away the letter before the police come and uses it as blackmail against the syndicate her husband worked for – if they keep her paid and she stays alive, then the letter never sees the light of day. Bannion is brought in to investigate and smells something bad immediately, but is hobbled in every aspect of the investigation by crooked cops over him.

big heat 2We’re also introduced to one of the mob’s lieutenants, Vic (Lee Marvin) and his trashy/sassy girlfriend Debby (noir MVP Gloria Grahame). They don’t have the most…um…stable of relationships, and after Debby gives the grieving Bannion some information, Vic disfigures Debby by throwing a pot of boiling coffee in her face. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Debby switches teams and almost single-handedly takes down the entire syndicate with nothing more than a mink coat, a gun and another pot of boiling coffee.

And that’s one of the most interesting things about “The Big Heat.” For all the trouble screenwriter Sydney Boehm goes to insisting Bannion is on a mission and will stop at nothing to take down the corruption in the city, he doesn’t really do all that much. In fact, all he seems to do is to let certain information leak to certain people… then he stands back and watches the fireworks. When the dead cop’s mistress Lucy (Dorothy Green, making the most of a small part) talks to Bannion, the detective tells several other people about the encounter, even though he has to know that this will endanger her life. And moments later she’s found dead. He tells Debby literally everything about the case and again, he has to suspect that she’ll seek vengeance for what happened to her. Boehm never overtly states that Bannion is playing with these women as he would with puppets, but the subtext is clear throughout.

This is perhaps one of the reasons “The Big Heat” has aged better than most of its vengeance counterparts. Those movies have the hero moving through the plot like a sledgehammer, taking no prisoners and doing all the actions himself. Bannion’s character and his motivations in any given scene are far murkier, which gives this movie a depth the others don’t come close to. This is, of course, a noir trademark of German master Fritz Lang, one of the greatest of all directors. Many believe he invented film noir style with his legendary “M,” and once he fled to America during WWII, his filmography includes a myriad of classic noirs, including “Scarlet Street,” “The Woman in the Window,” and “Clash by Night.”

Another hallmark of Lang’s films are the strong female characters, and another reason “The Big Heat” has aged well. Boehm’s screenplay has an obvious misogynist bent to it – only women are brutalized until the finale, and even in passing moments the violence is underlined. For example, we hear that Lucy was tortured by lit cigarette before she was murdered, we watch Vince abuse a woman for no reason at a bar, and then there’s the whole scalding coffee thing. But as dark as the screenplay is, the movie feels proto-feminist thanks in large part to Grahame and Nolan, who inhabit the characters you remember long after the movie ends. Nolan’s entire persona drips with “I couldn’t give a fuck,” and it’s telling that she barely blinks when Bannion threatens to strangle her to death.

big heat 3The real standout, however, is Grahame, which isn’t a surprise. Legend tells that Lang wanted Marilyn Monroe for the role of Debby, which is fun in theory but I don’t think would have worked in execution. This role is perfect for Grahame, who is beautiful, but gives off an air that she really, really, really worked hard to look this way and get as far as she’s gotten. After she is disfigured, you feel like you’re watching a deadly snake striking back. Monroe gave great performances in several films noir that we’re sure to talk about soon, but I doubt we could have ever gotten that fury from her.

Grahame and Nolan basically blow Ford and Marvin out of the water. The men give fine performances, but aside from Ford’s final scene with the dying Debby, I wonder if any other actor could have done the role just as well. Marvin’s face has that handsome/ugly thing going for it that reminds me of Jean-Paul Bemondo in “Breathless,” but he gives no subtlety in his performance, even when a little might have gone a long way.

Lang and his cinematographer, the iconic Charles Lang (“The Ghost & Mrs. Muir,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Magnificent Seven”) keep things well lit for most of the movie, which is a bit of a surprise. The movie is dripping with venetian blinds, but Lang only exploits them in a few shots. A staircase in an apartment building and Debby’s dark hotel room represent the most atmosphere the movie can conjure. Even though the legendary finale, where Debby throws boiling coffee back in Vince’s face, starts very shadowy and beautiful, but then the characters turn on the lights! What gives?! Luckily, the lack of shadows doesn’t hurt the film – it has many other assets it knows how to exploit.

What I wouldn’t give to be there on opening night of “The Big Heat” and watch as the audience gasped when Katie was killed in the car bomb. It’s a bold move that makes the movie legendary, and the fact that the rest of the film is pretty awesome too is just icing on the cake.

Score: ****1/2